If Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar contested polls, he would have barely managed five votes, said industry minister Nirupam Sen barely 48 hours before the poll in his constituency. “Leaders should be social reformers, and if necessary, pay the price,” he argued with Avijit Ghosal and Ravik Bhattacharya on May Day.
You have been regarded as a politician who always had strong roots both among the people and the party. How do you feel like appearing for a test among the electorate?
It is a welcome test. It helps us stay on course with the people’s tastes. It cannot be denied that my links with the electorate (the people of south Burdwan) was disrupted when I was sent to handle bigger responsibilities in Kolkata 10 years ago. I had to stay away dealing with issues of the industry and infrastructure. So relations need to be renewed.
After two decades of economic reform, West Bengal stands at a crucial juncture where it has to make some conscious choices with regard to its models of development. How do you see the role of a politician in Bengal now?
Today’s politician has to be a social reformer. And he needs to take unpopular decisions if required. Development often needs unpopular decisions. For example, in Singur if you focus on an individual farmer, he may be considered to be a sufferer. But the project would have translated in great social benefit.
Somebody who taught me cycling told me to look at the road ahead and never look at the pedal, or the handle. That’s how a politician needs to function. You have to chart the road to tomorrow.
But focusing only on the road and not on the pedal would undertake great political risk, as Singur has shown. Are you ready to make concomitant sacrifices?
Singur was a risk worth taking. And I am ready to make the sacrifices. If need be, we would sit in the Opposition. If you want to plan for the future, you have to be unpopular sometimes. If Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar contested the polls during his time, he would have barely managed five votes. His slogans of education for women and remarriage for widows were not popular at his time.
During my 10 years as the industry minister, I had to interact closely with investors, chambers of commerce and devote much time and energy to them. Many of my own party members thought I was deviating from the traditional Left stance. But that was necessary in the interest of the state.
The Trinamool Congress is advocating abolition of the government’s role in the land market. How would you counter?
West Bengal has only 1% fallow land, and we are a land scarce state with the most adverse land-man ratio in the country. If the government ceases to have a role in the land market, real estate predators may take away agricultural land at will. That may pose a grave crisis for the society some years down the line.
Haphazard industrial and real estate activity also needs to be controlled.
This election, what are the issues against you in your constituency?
These are predictably local issues such as traffic jams, inadequate water supply, and drainage problems. The bus stand also needs to be located outside the city to ease some congestion. At one level I am happy with the nature of the problems. These are problems of growth and the agenda for debate becomes development.
What solutions are you offering?
I cannot reduce traffic snarls on the streets, as I cannot expand the roads overnight. I am planning R50-crore drainage scheme. The water level is reducing in Burdwan, so I am exploring the option of roping in Damodar Valley Corporation for a possible long term solution. IIT-Kharagpur is being roped in for technical help. The crematorium has to be upgraded and the heritage buildings of Burdwan need to be preserved. Tourism too needs attention.
Trinamool Congress is asking why there is no industry in the constituency of the industry minister. You can understand industries cannot be set up in Burdwan South, which occupies the heart of Burdwan town.
As the results draw closer with a snowballing anti-incumbency on the horizons, what are your concerns?
I have no problems with sitting in the Opposition. After all a party or coalition cannot be in power as long as parliamentary democracy survives. But I am concerned at the sort of political culture the Opposition is ushering in.
There is no tolerance of the other party. That was never the culture of Bengal. We have always lived side by side. Look how smoothly things went when Subrata Mukherjee was the mayor of Kolkata in the recent past. The state government and Kolkata Municipal Corporation worked hand in hand for the development of the city.
There has to be mutual acceptability in a democracy. The culture of intolerance that the Trinamool is propagating is unhealthy. The cocktail of hatred and totalitarianism that we can see is dangerous. As a reaction, our supporters are also developing the tendency of retaining power at any cost.
One remarkable feature if the Bengal polls this time is that there are no debates.
Trinamool has unveiled a time bound action plan rarely seen in electoral battles. In terms of delivery, do you see Mamata Banerjee delivering on her promises?
Some plans such as setting up airports and industrial training institutes within the first 200 days look patently absurd. But speaking on general terms, Mamata Banerjee may face the same problems.
We would not prevent her from pursuing development work as long it serves the common good. But she might be walking in her own trap. The way we have moved after Singur, after learning the lessons, appears to be way forward. We have acquired several thousand acres of land after Singur through a consensus approach. In Panagarh, where we are building an industrial estate, people are approaching us for acquiring more land after the elections are over.